that some public schools fail to acknowledge that differences in the status among students can be harmful?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that some public schools fail to acknowledge that differences in the status among students can be harmful?

A: With the onset of a new school year, your question is a timely one, and can best be addressed by exploring the unique characteristics of educational institutions and the dynamics of interpersonal social comparisons.

Unlike other social institutions (religion, politics, etc.), primary and secondary schools are unique in the sense that enrollment and attendance is required. And while it’s true that pockets of legalized home schooling provide an option for some, the vast majority of families, by necessity, must enroll their children in our public school systems.

Once enrolled, students comprise a captive audience in terms of their required daily exposure to the school’s curriculum and social structure. And regardless of their race, family values and socio-economic status, students convene each day to face academic, as well as, social challenges. The degree to which a school’s programming and social fabric reflect the personal self-concept of a given student, directly impacts that student’s potential for motivation, self-esteem and continued growth.

While the “formal” purpose of school may be to educate students academically (reading, writing, and arithmetic, etc.), the “informal” purpose is to acculturate and socialize youngsters into productive members of society. Therefore, the way students learn to perceive themselves within the school context forms a stable or unstable foundation for their occupational and social futures. In addition to the daily demands of the school system (rules, regulations, expectations, sanctions), students must also navigate the complex social dynamic of their peers. Because the daily exposure to other students is involuntary, it represents a consistent, inescapable, and often inequitable, basis of social comparison.

It’s natural for humans to determine their self-worth by comparing themselves to others (see 9/19/08 column for details). When we want to know what we look like – we look into the mirror. When we want to know what we are like – we look into the face of others. Rather than revealing our physical realities, the “social-mirror” reflects our psychological attributes (self worth). If comparisons consistently show that we are superior to others, we are likely to adopt an inflated sense of self (ego). If our comparisons find that we are somehow inferior to others, especially in areas that are beyond our control as children (such as money or family structure), an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and inferiority can lead to anger, resentment, shame and self-hatred. Ideally, if by comparison, we find that we measure the same as our peers, a sense of social equity and psychological stability can be realized.

However, through the design and implementation of various school programs, events and curricula, social inequities are routinely emphasized. For example, when my son was in 2nd grade, his school held an annual event known as “Author’s Tea.” To instill an appreciation for creative writing, the students would write a book (one page each day). At the close of the school year, each 2nd grade class would hold a “tea” where parents were expected to come and read with their children. The event was held at 10:30 am on a weekday! Being an integrated class, I arrived at the “Tea” to find that the only parents present were white, upper-middle class, stay-at-home moms – while a black student stood in the corner crying pitifully because her parents had to work.

This heart-breaking scene of social inequity was unquestionably due to the divisive decision made by the school to emphasize parental attendance while scheduling the event at a time that benefited some students, but hindered others. When questioned, the teacher stated that “it was no big deal” and that “the parents that came could read the work of other children. After all, it’s all about the reading.” But in reality, we all know that once parental involvement is factored in, it becomes “all about” whose parents attend. If sharing their compositions was truly the focus, the equitable approach would have been to bring down a 5th grade class and match each 2nd grader with one 5th grader – thereby leveling the playing field.

If educators are sincerely dedicated to maximizing the pride and accomplishment of every student, they must be ever mindful of the many subtle (and not so subtle) ways their programs, events and curricula translate into differential student perceptions, treatments and outcomes. Anything less is tantamount to institutional prejudice and discrimination and should be considered wholly unacceptable.